Five Lessons on Successful Philanthropic Collaborations

This post originally appeared on The BUILD Health Challenge blog.

What does successful collaboration look like within philanthropy? How can funders best pursue emergent opportunities to work together to tackle complex problems?

Philanthropic leaders have wrestled with these questions for decades — yet effective collaboration among funders remains the exception rather than the rule. One reason may be that foundations are not known for quick decision-making. While careful deliberation and analysis of all options is usually a virtue, it can prevent us from capitalizing on time-sensitive opportunities.

Four of the five funding partners from the BUILD Health Challenge recently shared our experience in creating an $8.5 million national funding partnership at the Grantmakers in Health (GIH) conference in San Diego. The partnership came together at an exceptionally brisk pace by philanthropic standards — 205 days from the first planning meeting to the application deadline. During our session, Brian Castrucci from the de Beaumont Foundation, Graham McLaughlin from the Advisory Board Company, Chris Smith from the Colorado Health Foundation, and I shared what brought us to the table, the challenges we experienced, and how we adapted along the way.

While funder collaboratives are nothing new, the diversity of organizations represented within BUILD is unique:

  • Philanthropic funders partnering with a publicly traded company (The Advisory Board Company)
  • National funders partnering with a state-based funder (Colorado Health Foundation)
  • Health funders partnering with a foundation concerned with expanding urban opportunity (The Kresge Foundation)

All of the participating organizations also came to the table with dramatically different resources. This diversity of expertise and perspective ultimately strengthened the partnership, but also introduced challenges as we learned each other’s cultures while simultaneously making critical operational decisions.

Before a packed room at GIH, we identified some of the key challenges of putting together a complex national initiative on a tight timeline. For example, we had to lay the groundwork of establishing trust among partners (most of us had never worked together before) while also trying to establish necessary processes related to promoting the grant opportunity, managing incoming applications, and developing scoring criteria. Whoever coined the phrase “collaboration moves at the speed of trust” was on to something.

The funders were also accountable to different sets of constituencies: for example, the Advisory Board Company is ultimately responsible to its shareholders. Since their contribution to the BUILD Health Challenge represented the single largest cash donation in their history, their leadership had reasonable expectations about the initiative serving the tenets of its mission to make health care better and communities stronger. The Colorado Health Foundation, meanwhile, had to be able to demonstrate the value of BUILD to constituents in their home state.

While it certainly wasn’t easy, the five partners managed to successfully award grants, low-interest loans, and a suite of technical assistance opportunities to 18 partnerships across the United States.

At GIH, we shared five key takeaways from our experience that can inform other funding collaboratives:

1. Stay focused on your North Star.

Developing any complex partnership requires a lot of attention to detail — yet, if we remain mired in frustrating details, the partnership can fray. Keeping our shared purpose top of mind makes resolving differences about details much easier.

2. Greater risk yields greater reward.

Each of us needed to step outside of our comfort zones in establishing the BUILD Health Challenge — yet nothing great was ever achieved within one’s comfort zone, and we were able to achieve more together than any of us would acting alone.

3. Use your voice to find new partners.

Financial resources are only one type of capital at the disposal of philanthropy: we also hold significant reputational capital that can help shape the conversation. As one practical example, Graham at the Advisory Board Company identified Brian at the de Beaumont Foundation as a potential partner based on a blog post.

4. Determine governance practices up front.

At first, we spent a lot of time and effort trying to reach consensus on relatively minor issues because we hadn’t clearly defined decision-making roles and authority before launching into design and operations. We are a much more effective partnership now because we learned the hard way that not every decision requires full group consensus.

5. Embrace flexibility.

Most foundations develop elegant logic models and finely-honed strategic plans that guide our work — yet if we don’t give ourselves permission to take a few steps outside of those frameworks, we limit our opportunities for learning and impact. We learned to identify deal-breakers for each partner up front and to compromise everywhere else.

We hope that these lessons resonate with you, and we invite your contributions on this topic. We feel that we are much better prepared to expand and enhance the BUILD Health Challenge based on what we learned in its first iteration, and we look forward to sharing more soon.

Chris M. Kabel is deputy director of The Kresge Foundation’s Health Program. He is responsible for developing and co-executing the Health team’s grantmaking and investment strategies to promote health equity. He also invites and reviews grant proposals in support of the Health Program’s goals, while contributing to the team’s learning and evaluation strategies. In addition, Chris promotes and fosters more effective cross-team work at the foundation, supporting the development of interdisciplinary grantmaking and investment approaches that advance the strategies of multiple Kresge programs.

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